Addressing the global sustainability challenge through sustainable energy research and collaboration

September 21, 2018

It is well established now that mankind is facing an unparalleled challenge from global climate change and dependence on fossil fuels. Solutions to these challenges are expected to come from innovations in science, which is why so many institutions and laboratories around the world, including Abu Dhabi’s own Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, are dedicating so much of their energy to research and development. But taking ideas out of the labs and into the real world is not as simple as coming up with bright ideas. In order to really make an impact and succeed in the goal of promoting positive change, the result of critical research needs to be developed and disseminated through collaboration with academia, industry and government.

A salient example is sustainable energy generation, which is one of the biggest issues in the global sustainability discussion. At present, demand for energy services such as lighting, heating, and cooling are provided by heat, electricity and mechanical work derived primarily from the fossil energy sources. It is the combustion of these fossil sources that is responsible for 60 percent of global green house gasses. At Masdar Institute research is being carried out to develop new and innovative technologies that capture sustainable primary energy sources, such as biomass, solar and wind energy, and transform these into secondary energy carriers, such as liquid and solid fuels, that can be used to power the building, transportation, industrial, and agricultural sectors.

The goal isn’t to meet the world’s growing energy demand through the creation of esoteric energy technologies that only work well in the controlled environment of a lab. Rather new energy generation technologies need to be effectively utilized in real life. Therefore, the Institute is collaborating with aerospace and defense corporation Boeing, Abu Dhabi flagship carrier Etihad, and specialty materials company UOP Honeywell to develop saltwater agricultural systems that are indigenous to Abu Dhabi. These saltwater tolerant plants yield biomass for aviation biofuels and do not distort the global food chain, compete with fresh water resources or lead to unintended land use change.

While working with industry to come up with a cost-effective and environmentally benign biofuel is a great use of Abu Dhabi’s ready talent and expertise, it is not the only area of collaboration that may yield significant results. Even in the best case scenarios, sustainable primary energy sources will only be able to meet a portion of the world’s growing energy demands in the decades ahead. We will also need significant advances in energy efficiency to reduce the demand for energy that continues to grow. To address this need, Masdar Institute is working with Siemens to develop energy efficiency technologies that can be used in buildings and industrial settings. These systems will intelligently profile and modulate energy performance and temperature control via advanced sensors, actuators, automation, and controllers.

Another project with Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC), is investigating other critical systems for energy efficiency. One aspect of this collaboration aims to develop microsystem devices capable of processing increasingly large amounts of information but with the ultra-low power requirements so as to minimize cooling requirements while still allowing for high performance computational capability, even on mobile devices. Conserving energy through smart devices and systems such as those being pursued through these two collaborations could provide another piece to the sustainability challenge.

While the aforementioned collaborations seek to tackle energy generation and conservation challenges, reducing the impact of fossil fuel based energy generation is essential as fossil fuels will play a major role in energy generation for years to come. A carbon capture and sequestration project is therefore being pursued jointly by Masdar Institute, Siemens, Masdar Carbon and the Abu Dhabi Onshore Oil Company (ADCO) to develop carbon sequestration, storage and monitoring techniques that will mitigate the environmental impacts of fossil power production.

It is not only industry that is a necessary collaborator in the energy innovation pipeline but also government. Almost every nation that has successfully established renewable energy as a significant energy sourcehas had robust government policies to promote renewable energy.

The growth of renewable energy systems in major economies in the past couple of decades has been greatest when supported by policies such as feed-in tariffs, mandatory renewable energy targets, or tax concessions for renewable energy investment. These policies are most effective if targeted to reflect available renewable energy resources, and to respond to local political, economic, and social conditions. To that end, here at home the General Secretariat of the Executive Council (GSEC), Technology Development Committee (TDC), Abu Dhabi Water and Electric Authority (ADWEA) and others are working with Masdar Institute to evaluate policy and regulation designs that will play an important role in improving the adoption and economics of renewable energy as well as attraction of private investment capital to the region.

The old adage that ‘no man is an island’ is truer today than perhaps when it was originally coined. The world we live in is globalized and our lives are interconnected. It is obvious then that solutions to the shared and complex problems posed by global climate change and sustainability will require cooperation and collaboration across many disciplines and sectors. The pioneering and groundbreaking projects of today, which are reflected in the multifaceted and interdisciplinary undertakings described here, will yield solutions to the challenges of tomorrow. It is here in Abu Dhabi that we are paving the way to this future and are lucky to be at the forefront of this wave of change.

Dr. Steve Griffiths is Executive Director of Institute Initiatives at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.